The Biscayne Times

Aug 07th
From Garbage to Garden PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Shimonski   
February 2009

Vegetables, fruits, spices -- they all love your compost

Last year I had to plant an organic vegetable garden at Jungle Island for a large cooking and food event. It had been years since I had grown vegetables, but I remembered the success I’d had at Parrot Jungle with many species of food plants that had been grown on top of our compost pile. It was sort of an accident that vegetables were used. My main purpose had been to keep weeds from growing on top of this large pile of finished compost, and some of the plants worked very well. They grew as ground covers, with long tendrils like vines, such as the different species of melons, cantaloupe, and sweet potatoes.

Eventually we added to that list of food plants things like peppers, bush beans, cherry tomatoes, and jalapeños. The quality of the vegetables and fruit was excellent, and they were never fertilized or sprayed with pesticides.

For the new organic vegetable garden, I decided to plant in compost, but since the park doesn’t have the extra space for a large composting operation, it was necessary to purchase compost. I had 20 tons shipped in and dumped.

It arrived at bit hot and unfinished, so I left it to sit for a couple of weeks to let all the micro organisms finish their work and allow the pile to cool off. The feedstock used in making compost first goes through a very hot stage, a result of the heat generated by micro organisms devouring the organic matter, and each other. This hot stage can be deadly for plants. Even freshly chipped tree mulch goes through a hot stage. I have seen large, mature trees killed by the heat generated from mulch piled on top of their root zones!

After a couple of weeks, the compost was placed in large containers that were sunk halfway into the ground. I prefer to use containers as this keeps the compost from mixing with the surrounding soil and keeps bad organisms out and away from the plant roots. Planting in containers is also a convenient way to grow vegetables and spices in small spaces like patios and balconies.

I wanted to grow a variety of plant species, and began with the aromatic spices. Last year I visited the Peace Garden in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. This is a very large, ethno-botanical collection of native and naturalized herbs that have been collected throughout Egypt and the Sinai. While walking through this large site, I was amazed at the great variety of rich fragrances I encountered. For the garden at Jungle Island, I chose different varieties of basil, coriander, oregano, dill, rosemary, and other spices along with the typical tomato plants, malanga, and papaya. The garden was a success and is now a permanent addition to the park.

I have always been interested in the science and art of composting. There are many ways to compost -- aerobic or anaerobic, in-vessel or windrow. You can even use earthworms. This is called vermicomposting, which uses these little critters to turn organic wastes into very high-quality compost. It is one of the best ways to compost kitchen wastes, paper, and cardboard. The only organic wastes that should not be composted this way are meat and milk products, because of potential bacterial issues. The worms eat the garbage, and as it passes through their bodies, the micro organism within digest (compost) the material and pass it through. The resulting byproduct makes an excellent soil or soil additive.

Recently I wanted to start a small, clean composter at home because we grow vegetables and need a source of compost. We also dump quite a bit of food waste and organic material in the garbage each week, and this is definitely a great resource. I purchased a small vermicomposter and a couple of pounds of earthworms online and got started. We now are not only recycling our food and junk-mail waste, but we have a great product in which we plant and grow our vegetables and spices.

The worms will continue to reproduce, and they also make great additions to a garden. In fact, earthworms are a sign of a healthy soil. They not only digest organic matter and turn it into a nutritious substrate, but they also help to aerate the soil. The tunnels they create aid in decompacting the soil and allow much needed oxygen and water to reach plant roots.

Eight years ago, when I first started working at Jungle Island and was moving in trees, I never observed earthworms in any of the excavations we made. The soil was highly compacted and very poor in organic matter. Now, after years of adding hundreds of yards of mulch to the garden each year (to decompose), every time it rains or we dig a hole to put in more plants, we always find earthworms. We have created one very large organic garden.


Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified municipal arborist, director of horticulture at Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or visit

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